Barn owl (Tyto alba)

French: Chouette effraie
GenusTyto (1)
SizeWingspan: 80-95 cm (2)
Length: 33-39 cm (2)
Top facts

The barn owl is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Specially protected under Schedules 1 and 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (3). Listed as a Species of Conservation Concern by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, but not a priority species (4). Included in the Birds of Conservation Concern Amber List (medium conservation concern) (5).

Ethereal and ghost-like, the barn owl (Tyto alba) has golden-grey coloured upperparts, and pure white underparts (6). The heart-shaped facial disc is pale, and the large eyes are black (2). It flies silently and slowly, often with the feet dangling (2). A number of vocalisations are produced, including an eerie drawn-out shriek (6).

The barn owl is widespread throughout Britain, but is scarce or absent from the Highlands and the islands of Scotland (6). It is one of the most wide-ranging birds in the world, known from most of Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australasia (7).

Occurs in farmland with hedgerows and copses, uncultivated areas such as heaths and marshes, sometimes large gardens, and occasionally in villages close to fields (8). It typically nests in tree holes, ruined buildings and farm buildings, hence the association with barns reflected by the common name (2).

The barn owl feeds on small rodents, especially voles and mice (8), and on frogs and insects (2), which it locates using its excellent sense of hearing (9). It is usually active in the evening, early morning or at night (8), but in times of hard frost or snowfall, individuals may be forced to hunt for longer periods, and may be seen in the day (10).

The unlined nest is made in hollow trees or in old buildings. In April or May, between four and six white eggs are laid. These are incubated solely by the female, who is fed by the male during this time (6). Incubation starts after the first egg is laid, so they hatch at intervals (8), 32 to 34 days after being laid (6). The young therefore vary widely in age and size (8), and spend a very long time in the nest, between 64 to 86 days (6).

From the middle of the 19th century, the beautiful barn owl began to decline in Britain. The original decline is thought to have been the result of an increase in persecution. The decline continued as a result of agricultural intensification, poor winter weather, traffic deaths, pesticide use and a loss of hunting and nesting sites (11).

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, it is illegal to kill, injure or take a barn owl or to remove or damage eggs. The Barn Owl Conservation Network (BOCN), a project of the Hawk and Owl Trust, is promoting a habitat creation scheme, with the provision of nest boxes to help this species (9).

For more on the conservation of barn owls, and details of how you can help:

For more information on the barn owl and other bird species:

Information authenticated by the RSPB:

  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2011)
  2. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterstrom, D., & Grant, P.J. (1999) Collins Bird Guide. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, London.
  3. Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (November 2002):
  4. BTO- Breeding Birds of the Wider Countryside: Barn Owl. (November 2002):
  5. RSPB (2003) The population status of birds in the UK:
  6. Gooders, J. (1982) Collins British Birds. William Collins Sons and Co Ltd, London.
  7. Walters, M. (1994) Eyewitness Handbooks: Birds Eggs. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  8. RSPB (2003): Pers. comm.
  9. Barn Owl Conservation Network (November 2002):
  10. Lack, P. (1986) The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland. T. & A. D. Poyser Ltd, Calton.
  11. Balmer, D.E. Adams, S.Y. and Crick, H.Q.P. (2000) Report on Barn Owl Release Scheme: Monitoring Project Phase II. BTO Research Report No. 250.